What is the purpose of my baptism?
Some of us can struggle to see the continuity of the covenant of grace across the Old and New Testaments, which leads us to question the validity and purpose of our baptism. To illustrate this continuity and the practical implications of receiving baptism as the new covenant sign, it may be helpful to go back and think about how evangelism and discipleship functioned in the Old Testament. While the new covenant is a better administration of the covenant of grace, yet the essence has been the same through the ages. This fake dialogue between Abraham, a pagan Hittite, and Isaac his son illustrates how old testament believers would have grappled with some of the struggles we still face today.
Part 1: Abraham and the Pagan
One day Abraham and his pagan Hittite neighbor are having a conversation.
Hittite: “Abraham, you’ve talked to me a lot about the LORD, my sin and my need for salvation. All of this is totally new to me, but it’s registered in my heart. What should I do (Acts 2:37)?”
Abraham: “Friend, repent, believe in the One true God and the promise of the coming Seed who will destroy the Serpent (Gen 3:15), and be circumcised (Acts 2:38)!”
Hittite: “I understand why I must repent and believe, and by God’s grace I believe I have done that. But why should I be circumcised? Does that save me?”
Abraham: “No. Faith alone in the coming Seed saves us from our sins (Gen. 15:6). But the Lord wants us to receive circumcision as a visible sign of His gracious work of salvation. Let me explain:
First, He has cut you off from your past sinful life — today marks a new beginning! He’s cut off your sin nature and give you a new heart so that now you will begin to live a new life (Deut 30:6).
Second, He has removed all of your guilt from you of your past, present and future sins! Just as your foreskin is removed in circumcision, so God removes your guilt from you as far as the east is from the west. He has freely and fully forgiven you because of the work of the coming Seed. Through faith in Him, the Lord has justified you and counts you as righteous in His sight (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:11).
Third, God has done all of this so that you might be separated from the world and set apart for Him. This is at the heart of circumcision and His gracious covenant. He says, “I will be your God and you will be My people” (Gen 17:7). Circumcision reminds you that God has brought you into an intimate relationship with Himself. It’s by being united to the Lord that we enjoy all of His saving benefits and now He’s calling you to walk in fellowship with Him. So, while there are physical blessings attached to circumcision (promise of the land and seed), yet at its core are massive spiritual promises (Rom 2:28-29)!”
[Commentary – Significantly, the essence of what is promised in circumcision is the same as what is promised in baptism. The heart of circumcision was the promise “I will be Your God” (Gen 17:11), which speaks of an intimate relationship with God – this is expressed in baptism by being baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Flowing out of this union with God in Christ (Rom 6:3-4), God promises us forgiveness by Christ’s blood and renewal by His Spirit (Act 2:38; Titus 3:3-5) both of which are promised in baptism.]
Hittite: “That’s amazing. But I’m still confused on the significance of circumcision because aren’t all these blessings already promised to me in the message you shared with me? What’s the point of circumcision if the same things have been promised in your preaching to me?”
Abraham: “You are correct to see that circumcision and the message I brought to you are promising the same things. However, it would be wrong to conclude that circumcision isn’t helpful. Circumcision is the gracious gift of our loving Lord. Let me tell you a story…”
Abraham tells the Hittite about how the Lord led him to faith so that he believed in the promised Seed and was counted righteous through faith in Him (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:1-5). But Abraham then recounted the tragic story of his unbelief and his horrible choice to take matters into his own hands by conceiving a child through Hagar (Gen. 16). The story climaxes with Abraham describing how the Lord responded to his weak faith by giving him the sign of circumcision (Gen 17).
Abraham concludes: “So, friend, you see that the Lord graciously gave me a sign to remind me of His great promises of salvation and a seal to remind me that He is faithful to His promise (Rom 4:11). God wanted me to be circumcised not because His promises are shaky and unreliable, but because He knows my faith is shaky and unreliable (Heb 6:13-18). My circumcision is meant to strengthen my faith in His coming Seed who alone is my righteousness and my salvation.”
Hittite: “Wow, the Lord is patient and He stoops so low to help us! I believe in Him and so I want to be circumcised and be identified as one who is part of the family of faith!”
Abraham: “Praise the Lord!”
The man is circumcised and is added to Abraham’s household. This conversation happens again and again with different people that Abraham meets in his travels. There are times when the head of a household repents, believes, and then he and his whole household is circumcised and added to the covenant community, just like Abraham experienced (Gen 17:1-14). Significantly, this pattern of household inclusion in the covenant continues in the New Testament (Acts 16:11-15, 31-34; 1 Cor 1:16).
Part 2: Abraham and the Covenant Child
One day Isaac comes to Abraham.
Isaac: “Dad, I’m really struggling with my circumcision. It wasn’t my choice or decision to be circumcised. It was done to me before I knew anything about it. When I hear your story, I see that you first believed and then you were circumcised. This is the same for many of our neighbors who have been coming to faith as well. They hear the message of salvation, repent, believe and are circumcised. That seems way more meaningful than what I’ve experienced. Does my circumcision mean anything? Shouldn’t we have waited until later in my life when it could have been connected to my confession of faith in the Lord?”
Abraham: “My son, I understand your concern, but do not underestimate the significance of your circumcision (Rom 3:1-2)! God has come to you personally with great promises of His salvation. He has not done this with the children who grow up in the pagan homes around us. Yes, like you, they need to hear the message of the saving Lord. But, son, realize how privileged you are! God has ensured that you would have those promises signed and sealed to you already in your earliest days! Our God has done this so that you might know what His posture is towards you (Psalm 81:10; Mk 10:13-16; 1 Cor 7:14). Before you could take a step towards Him or impress Him in any way, He has come to you, promising you everything you need to make you truly happy in this life and in eternity!
Isaac: “Dad, when you say it like that, that’s really quite amazing. But all that happened a long time ago. I just wish my circumcision felt more meaningful to me like it is for my Hittite friend who later in life repented, believed and then chose to be circumcised.”
Abraham: “While you received your circumcision just after your birth, your circumcision is very meaningful. God wants you to use your circumcision throughout your whole life. Every day your circumcision preaches to you that He wants an intimate relationship with you. The promises bound up with circumcision declare that He will do everything in His coming Seed that’s required for Him, the Holy God, to have a relationship with you, the unholy sinner. In circumcision, God is saying, “I am the perfect Saviour for you! I am the One who can deal with your spiritual deadness by giving you new life and I am the One who can deal with your guilt by removing it from you.”
Isaac: “Dad, that’s almost too good to be true. So, are you saying that the problem isn’t with God giving me circumcision when I was a little baby, but in the fact that I haven’t been using my circumcision like I should?”
Abraham: “That’s exactly right. Circumcision, like all of God’s gifts, is a good gift that can be rightly used for our benefit or misused, abused, or ignored for our peril. And son, it’s really easy to go wrong here. Do not rest on your circumcision as if that’s enough to tick the box and give you a saving relationship with God (John 8:39-47). Do not think that by being circumcised you are somehow made more acceptable to God than our uncircumcised neighbors (Phil 3:1-11). Do not despise what you’ve been given by ignoring the promises you receive in circumcision (Gen. 25:34; Heb 12:15-17). Son, I’m afraid your brother Ishmael has gone down the path of misusing his circumcision. What a dreadful thing! When we receive more privileges from God, there is greater judgment if we neglect to use those privileges in the right way (Mt 11:20-24; Heb 10:29-31).”
Isaac: “Okay, so this is really serious. How does God want me to use my circumcision?”
Abraham: “That’s a great question! Our first concern must always be, ‘What does God tell us to do?” And son, the Lord wants you to do exactly what I did by His grace. He wants you to believe in His coming Seed. While left to ourselves, we cannot even do that, yet I, and many others, are testimony to the fact that God loves to work the impossible for sinners (Mk 10:26-27). He says He is gathering to Himself a people as numerous as the stars in the heaven and the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17). So, go to our God with the hand of faith laying hold of the promised Seed, and you shall be united to Him and experience all of His saving benefits. You too will be counted righteous in His sight (Gen 15:6) and He will be your Shield and your great Reward (Gen 15:1). You will know Him as the Almighty God, and He will be your strength so that more and more you can walk blameless before Him (Gen 17:1). Though our faith is weak and often faltering, you will be amazed at how He strengthens it in times of testing (Gen 22; Rom 4:20)! Son, there is no greater joy than being a friend of God (John 8:56; Jam 2:23) and living a life that is set apart for His glory!”